A master bluesman by anyone’s definition, Kenny Wayne Shepherd has returned with The Traveller, another addition to his catalogue of originals. At the mere age of 42, Shepherd has already accomplished a lot: He’s opened for Van Halen, Aerosmith and Bob Dylan. He’s formed the blues band of his dreams, The Rides, with Stephen Stills and Barry Goldberg. To top it all off, he once made a ten-day tour across America to play with blues legends of the likes of B.B King, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Pinetop Perkins and turned it into a record, 10 Days Out: Blues From The Backroads. With all this in mind, whether Mr. Blue On Black can release another zinger in 2019 where the sterile seems triumphant over the soulful remains to be seen.
Overall, The Traveller has more of a clean, radio-ready sound, which while convenient for the major listening market dulls the edge one might come to expect of a blues record after 20-some years of raw blues and garage revivals by the likes of Jack White and The Black Keys. Nevertheless, this drawback takes nothing away from the ferocity of Shepherd’s guitar playing and the soulfulness of his vocal work, both of which are clear and evident on sexy groovers like “Woman Like You” and “I Want You.” While he is a bluesman first, Shepherd proves himself unafraid to explore with a blaring horn section on “I Want You”, gusting headlong afterwards into a beautifully rooted tryst with country and folk on “Tailwind.”
Another piece of the record worthy of note is the catchiness of Shepherd’s hooks, again balancing out his careful dance on this record between blues substance and mainstream sensibilities. It need not be wordy, in the case of “We All Alright”: “Yeah, we all alright, yeah we all alright…” but simply effective enough and backed with enough well-constructed musical punch from the background to emphasize and sear the words into the listener’s head for good. On the note of music standing the test of time, Shepherd slips in a rocking cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul”, perhaps as a nod to Rides bandmate Stephen Stills, and continues onward into his road-inspired travel thematics with the laid-back “Better With Time” before closing out on the momentous and dramatic “Turn To Stone”, bringing the voluminous listening journey of The Traveller to a grand and appropriate end.
On the whole, The Traveller is a well-constructed record that, while unquestionably versatile, does not differ too far away from its foundation; perhaps an appropriate allegory for Kenny Wayne Shepherd himself as indicated by the name and running themes throughout this record: Travelling the world and back but never forgetting where one came from at the end of the road. Some of the more mainstream elements inserted into this record could have been done without, and as alluded to the polished production may have been a bit stifling. Flaws aside, it is a pleasing and impressive effort by a master craftsman at his lifelong musical trade. It will be interesting to see in the next decade and beyond where Kenny Wayne Shepherd will travel next.